If This Is The New Lexus, We Can Stop With The Pejoratives

2013 Lexus GS 350

So Lexus wants to be taken seriously now. Certainly the brand is a heavyweight – and has been since the moment it launched 22 years ago, changing the luxury market almost overnight. It's just had trouble garnering the respect of the cognoscenti, the car enthusiast types, the sorts of people who can see a pair of taillights flash by and identify year, make and model.

Lexus representatives are not shy about the issue, in part because it's hard to ignore years of critics calling your cars bland and soulless, while smirking, self-avowed "car guys" trade their BMW sedans in on new BMW sedans, even as they grumble about electronic nannies, iDrive and Chris Bangle.

That's why Lexus built the LFA supercar, say the company's flacks, who seem unnaturally willing to admit that previous models were lacking a certain something, having settled upon the word "emotion" as the politically correct way to describe what was wrong with this last generation of Lexus products. But the real reason behind such refreshing, if specious hindsight, is that the Lexus braintrust thinks it has the solution to winning over its detractors in the 2013 Lexus GS 350.

The redesigned midsize luxury sedan goes on sale in February 2012, so Lexus saw fit to invite us out to Orange County, California, to spend a few hours behind the wheel. But first it wanted to emphasize just how important the GS is to the brand, as it will be introducing the new face of Lexus to the world – in a Super Bowl spot, no less.

Yes, that pinched, hollow stare you see from the so-called "spindle grille" of the GS is, indeed, it. Serious? Yes. Aggressive? Check. Mean? Pretty much.

2013 Lexus GS 350 side view2013 Lexus GS 350 front view2013 Lexus GS 350 rear view

If the Lexus GS doesn't look like the sort of car that slows down to let you merge, that's because the self-important drivers of the competition's products probably wouldn't either. While the Lexus folks might blush at putting such a fine point on it, they describe their prototypical customer as someone who wants it all, without compromises. In other words, not the sort of guy you'd want to work for, but exactly the kind you might choose to perform surgery – or represent you in court if you want to sue the doctor afterwards.

Even if we're not sold on the new grille, the rest of its lines are smooth and elegant.

But before we get too caught up in the idea that Lexus is embracing an edgier look, let's be honest: It's not like they've gone Juggalo here. Indeed, the GS now wears a sharp and scowling face, but there's little about the rest of the GS's styling that's shocking or screams for attention. In fact, while tooling around the OC, we were ruthlessly ignored, just one more in a seemingly endless succession of midsize luxury cars.

Even if we're not sold on the new grille, the rest of its lines are smooth and elegant. You can see plenty of traces of the old GS in the new one, especially in the greenhouse and the curved forward edge of the C-pillar, which carries over since the original. But Lexus has lengthened the rear deck a bit, while sloping its sides down to meet the character line that extends forward from the front fender along the side of the car. This, combined with a two-inch increase in width, makes the new GS look lower to the ground and better visually balanced than the old model, despite being over an inch taller. The rear fascia of the GS looks more like its baby brother now, and the family resemblance will only increase once the IS acquires its own spindle grille. In total, the GS is an attractive car, and similar enough to the BMW 5 Series that nobody will mistake it for a Toyota Avalon.

2013 Lexus GS 350 grille2013 Lexus GS 350 headlight2013 Lexus GS 350 taillight2013 Lexus GS 350 exhaust tips

Inside the GS, it becomes even clearer that Lexus has been studying the Bavarians. The instrument panel – hell, the whole interior – not only resembles the 5 Series, it feels like it when you're behind the wheel. Except it's better. Everything in the Lexus is pretty much in the same place as in the BMW, from the LCD screen that dominates the center of the dashboard, to the HVAC vents and controls, to the Lexus Remote Touch Interface right where BMW's iDrive knob would be. Even the GS steering wheel seems like a Bimmer knock-off. But the cowl height in the GS is low, which allows for a seating position high enough that the driver doesn't feel buried in the cockpit and visibility is excellent as a result. We also like that the instrument panel lacks all the strange contours of the 5er.

The materials in the GS are much improved, with lots of stitched leather upholstery and new mood lighting. That said, some of the metal-look plastic in the GS is, indeed, plastic – likely a price that engineers felt was worth paying to achieve an overall 10 percent reduction in the weight of the interior trim. You won't notice any skimping elsewhere, however, as the car is as quiet and comfortable as you'd expect of a Lexus. Optional 16- or 18-way adjustable seats seem like overkill, until you climb out of them and sit in the standard 10-way seats. Yes, we really have become that spoiled. We expect an on-board chiropractor next.

2013 Lexus GS 350 interior2013 Lexus GS 350 front seats2013 Lexus GS 350 menu display2013 Lexus GS 350 shifter

Lexus says the new GS tips the scales at exactly the same 3,795 pounds as the outgoing model, and while the length and wheelbase of the GS have not changed, the new model does have a 1.6-inch wider front track and a two-inch increase in the rear. Lexus claims the torsional rigidity of the GS has been improved by 14 percent thanks to the use of high strength steel and new welding processes. We'll take all this – and a redesigned multilink rear suspension that enables four-wheel-steering – as a down payment on further evaluation.

The F Sport carries quite a bit of equipment not offered on the other models.

During our day with the GS we were mostly stuck puttering around So. Cal., without much opportunity to test the dynamics. To complicate matters, Lexus will be selling four different trim levels that carry some radically different equipment, not to mention an all-wheel-drive option and the GS450h hybrid. We're going to write up the hybrid separately, as it's truly a different car altogether – although we could almost say that about the F Sport model.

Positioned as the halo of the range, the F Sport carries quite a bit of equipment not offered on the other models, including 19-inch wheels, 14-inch front brake rotors, a firmer suspension with a special calibration for its adaptive system and a variable gear ratio steering system. It's also the only way you can put your hands on the optional Lexus Dynamic Handling System, which is how you get the rear steering actuator, capable of turning the wheels up to two degrees to improve turn in and handling.

2013 Lexus GS 350 wheel

The base GS, Premium and Luxury trims are more similar than they are different, with the Luxury package getting the adaptive part of the F Sport's trick suspension, but not the rest. A whole host of safety equipment is available, including a collision mitigation system with an infrared camera mounted behind the steering wheel to scan the driver's eyes. Lexus has also seen fit to introduce a head-up display that's functionally identical to the system General Motors has been using for years in such vehicles as the Chevrolet Corvette and Cadillac CTS. The company's Enform telematics system is also offered alongside an optional navigation system with a massive 12.3-inch screen.

Certainly, Lexus has loaded up the GS with a whole bag of new tricks, but its core is largely carryover. The optional V8 engine is gone – nobody bought them, apparently. So the 3.5-liter V6 remains, improved to make it a bit more powerful. It's now rated at 306 horsepower and 277 lb-ft of torque, an increase of just three horses and three lb-ft. However, Lexus estimates a fuel economy improvement of two miles per gallon on the highway and one combined when compared to the 2011 GS. The new car's 0-60 mile-per-hour time remains at 5.7 seconds. The 2013 GS uses the same six-speed, sequential-shift automatic, but with paddle shifters in addition to a standard shift lever. Shifting with the paddles is fast and satisfying, and we like that they are small and well positioned unobtrusively behind the wheel.

2013 Lexus GS 350 engine

Complementing the paddle shifters is a new three- or four-position Drive Mode, selected by a knob that sits below the shifter on the center console. This allows the driver to select either Eco or Sport S mode, in addition to the default normal mode. Eco mode attempts to save fuel by decreasing throttle response, while Sport mode does pretty much the opposite. The fourth setting, Sport S+, is tied to the adaptive suspension system that's standard on the Luxury and F Sport models, and optional on other trim levels.

Driving even the base car in normal mode feels more engaging than past Lexus models, with good road feel and feedback through the steering wheel. We'll mention that Lexus seemed to have all the cars on hand equipped with at least 18-inch wheels, despite spec-ing undersized 17-inchers as standard. The brakes slow the car with authority and the pedal feels nice and firm. Throttle response is great, and the sound under full-bore acceleration is sonorous. A new Helmholtz resonator in the engine compartment and a revamped muffler produce some pretty nice music, and it is refreshing to see Lexus embrace the idea that its cars can be quiet and loud at the same time – just as long as the noises are the right ones. Really, Lexus has hit on all the right notes (ahem) with its redesign of the GS.

2013 Lexus GS 350 rear 3/4 view

Introducing a new design direction for the brand on the GS is pretty gutsy on the surface, because if there's one market segment where the pursuit of perfection has caught nothing but scorn, it would be this one. In 2009 and 2010, the GS was the worst selling sedan in the Lexus lineup, with sales of just over 7,000 per year. By comparison, the one-size-smaller IS sells about five times that number. Yet Lexus thinks it can move about 24,000 units of the new GS each annum, gung-ho on wooing buyers from other luxury marques. Lexus officials are claiming they expect about half of GS sales to come from the competition, which to hear them tell it means Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.

Perhaps this bold new Lexus is actually vintage Toyota.

Trebling sales would seem to require a historic European emigration, even if the segment grows some five to seven percent next year, as Lexus predicts. The good news is that there are plenty of customers out there: Mercedes and BMW combined to sell over 100,000 E-Classes and 5-Series last year. By that measure, perhaps this bold new Lexus is actually vintage Toyota – in other words, pursuing a conservative strategy designed to test the waters on a lower volume vehicle before applying the face paint to the more lucrative parts of the lineup, like the ES sedan and RX sport utility.

While we can say with some certainty that the GS has the right aesthetics and a pleasant enough cabin to compete with its European adversaries, the hardware is what's really going to make or break the new model. From our initial impressions, Lexus is right there, offering a compelling package with enough serious go-fast bits to warrant consideration from all but the most slavish fans of Teutonic motoring. Now we just need to find the right roads.